“Shifting Focus”

“Shifting Focus,” an exhibition of photographic work by 16 artists, neither claims to be a survey, nor in any specific way to be representative of current photography by women. What it offers instead is the opportunity to consider diverse practices that are not reducible to the common denominator of gender. Having said that, the overriding concern of the work does seem to be patterns of perception as seen in the light of sexual difference. It is the merit of this exhibition and the accompanying catalogue essay by Susan Butler to suggest and emphasize such a reading, with all the complications that it entails.

Individual works negotiate the relationship between the particular fascinations and seductions of the photographic image and the formal means employed with varying degrees of complexity. Yve Lomax juxtaposes photographs bearing different pictorial conventions—film stills, pictures from the family album—and combines them with monochromatic color fields or designs for wallpaper or gift-wrapping paper. The resulting difficulty in attempting to piece together these images into some kind of narrative coherence foregrounds the desire to establish order and sequence, while invariably ending in nonsense, as the viewer is defeated by the mismatch of expectations and the seemingly independent rationale of the images. A pleasure in the indeterminate and absurd is emphasized by evoking and refusing the satisfaction of mastery and control that governs the conventional parameters of individual images.

This demand for active reading is central in another way to the work of Katharina Sieverding, who continues her investigations into representations of self by means of masquerade and mimicry. She manipulates formal vocabularies that endlessly reproduce a repertoire of facial expressions designed to represent metonymically feminine types. By photographing her own face according to these codes, the obsessive repetition creates the never quite identical, never totally commensurate experience that is promised in the glamorous mise en scène. The recurrent references to night accentuate particular mechanisms of the photographic image whereby artificiality of lighting and color come to signify the processes of setting out fantasies and fictions of feminine identity.

The conceptual breadth of work by Lomax and Sieverding puts into perspective the more limited strategies employed by some of the other artists here. The staging of fetishism in Sarah Charlesworth’s glossy Cibachromes, for instance, looks decorative, especially next to the somewhat literal but gutsy visual comments on sexual stereotyping and fetishism by Ingrid Orfali. More important, however, is the breadth of issues raised by the work in this show, both in terms of formal choices and subject matter (to use this problematic distinction). If this can be regarded as, to some extent, indicative of the parameters within which questions of sexual difference are now articulated in relation to photography, this exhibition certainly makes a point. It also includes a number of possible directions that future curatorial efforts might take. Interesting connections and divergences are suggested by the work in this show: for instance, the photographs of Lynne Cohen, Candida Höfer, and Susan Trangmar focus, in very different ways, on developing a “feminine” look at institutional interiors and other sites of cultural definition. More problematic, however, is an obvious hesitation when it comes to the representation of issues regarding other forms of sociopolitical stratification. As the only work specifically raising issues of social class, Anne Testut’s autobiographical presentations of generational conflict within the French haute bourgeoisie, more than any of the other pieces here, points to the limitations of the framework adopted by most of the artists in this exhibition.

Desa Philippi